So could other cities face similarly dire prospects?
"Harrisburg's not a harbinger of what's going to be happening with cities in the rest of the country," says Christopher Hoene, of the National League of Cities, a non-profit association of cities and municipal leagues.
"Municipal bankruptcy has historically been rare," he says, noting that since it became a legal option in the 1930s there have only been a few hundred cases across the country.
In recent years, only two other cities - Vallejo, California and Central Falls, Rhode Island - have declared bankruptcy.
But for Harrisburg's long-suffering residents, one-third of whom live below the poverty line, it is hard not to see the city's woes as part of a wider phenomenon.
"Harrisburg's just a small microcosm of what's going on in the United States," says Angela Jenkins, beating a drum at a small Occupy Harrisburg protest camp, down by the slow-moving waters of the Susquehanna river.
"Everything here's starting to collapse, just as it is nationally."
Bankrupt Harrisburg holds Wild West auction (BBC)